Thomas Bewick Land Rail Bird Illustration Engraving History of British Birds 18"
A History of British Birds is a natural history book by Thomas Bewick, published in two volumes. Volume 1, "Land Birds", appeared in 1797. Volume 2, "Water Birds", appeared in 1804. A supplement was published in 1821. The text in "Land Birds" was written by Ralph Beilby, while Bewick took over the text for the second volume. The book is admired mainly for the beauty and clarity of Bewick's wood engravings, which are widely considered his finest work, and among the finest in that medium.
British Birds has been compared to works of poetry and literature. It plays a recurring role in Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre. William Wordsworth praised Bewick in the first lines of his poem "The Two Thieves": "Oh now that the genius of Bewick were mine, And the skill which he learned on the banks of the Tyne."
The book was effectively the first "field guide" for non-specialists. Bewick provides an accurate illustration of each species, from life if possible, or from skins. The common and scientific name(s) are listed, citing the naming authorities. The bird is described, with its distribution and behaviour, often with extensive quotations from printed sources or correspondents. Those who provided skins or information are acknowledged. The species are grouped into families such as "Of the Falcon", using the limited and conflicting scientific sources of the time. The families of land birds are further grouped into birds of prey, omnivorous birds, insectivorous birds, and granivorous birds, while the families of water birds are simply listed, with related families side by side.
Each species entry begins on a new page; any spaces at the ends of entries are filled with tail-pieces, small, often humorous woodcuts of country life. British Birds remains in print, and has attracted the attention of authors such as Jenny Uglow. Critics note Bewick's skill as a naturalist as well as an engraver.